When exploring various options for a service year, one of the reasons I ultimately decided to apply for YAV over other programs, was its size and support system. It seemed that YAV was big enough to offer great opportunities but small enough to receive personal attention. I did not want to participate in a program where I would be a number among thousands of volunteers. Well, my inclination was accurate! As a YAV I have felt very supported on multiple levels by many people.
The Young Adult Volunteer program has a small national staff, made up of five people. I first met a member of the national staff when I had my initial interview, back in January. Rev. Richard Williams, the YAV coordinator (head honcho), spoke with me over the phone for probably an hour describing the program but also getting to know me and addressing my questions. It seemed that he really cared about my experience, that he wanted me to go to a site that would be a good fit, and that he would be available to me all throughout the process. The majority of my interaction with the national staff occurred during Orientation. The staff made up of five unique and quirky personalities offered training and support. We saw their serious side while explaining policy, and their silly side while performing in the talent show. Now, in my YAV year, I don’t communicate with the national staff too often, but I know that I could contact them at any time, and they would respond, knowing my name, and be happy to help. I was reminded by their presence and support when Richard sent me an email after I was hit by a car while biking to work in October. He told me that I was in the thoughts and prayers of the national staff, asked how I was recovering, and offered encouragement as a fellow biker.
If you are a regular reader of my blog, you’ve seen me reference our local Site Coordinator, Alison Wood, on several occasions. During a one-on-one meeting with her during my first week in Tucson, I told her that I wasn’t quite sure of the role of a site coordinator. She responded, “I’m not your friend. I’m not your boss.” Don’t tell Alison, but I think that she is actually both.
I understand the sentiment of her words, though. She is not my boss in the sense that she does not oversee my work at my site placement. She does, though, offer support related to my site placement and can serve as an intermediary between me and my placement supervisor if needed. She facilitates our community discussions each Friday, with a focus on developing vocational discernment tools and living into the value of intentional community. She holds office hours twice a week, which is an open invitation to chat one-on-one. She also offers not-so-optional opportunities to chat during monthly one-on-one check-ins. During retreats, we have played board games together and joked around. I like her sense of humor. After my bike accident, she drove me to the emergency room, and sat with me for hours, blowing up rubber gloves and telling me silly stories. When our 1998 Saturn, that serves as our program vehicle, does not start, she takes it to the shop. Really, she does a lot, so there is no way that I can include it all. The bottom line is: I can call her anytime, with an emergency, or with an existential question, and know that she will respond, not with answers but with challenging questions that allow me to grow.
Local Board of Directors
Each national YAV site has a board of directors. They function as the site coordinator’s bosses and an additional support system for us. Our board is made up of members of local churches, former YAVs, and community members. It is odd to refer to them as board members because they feel more like what I would usually call “family friends.” We see them at churches sometimes. Some have invited us over for dinner. Others have taken us to community events. I especially like when board members with young families invite us to do stuff with them and their kids! We typically do not interact with board members on a regular basis, but I know we can always reach out to them if we need assistance, and they will be happy to help and support us.
I do not know if other YAV sites have discernment partners or if it was Alison’s idea, but regardless, it was one aspect of the Tucson site that caught my attention during my initial interview. After getting to know us for about a month, Alison matched each of us YAVs with a discernment partner who she thought was similar in temperament, interests, etc. I prefer to call them “mentor buddies.” Our discernment partners support us human beings. They are not our Site Coordinator, nor on the Board of Directors, nor associated with our site placements, so they won’t heckle us about fund raising or specific assignments. They are just people we can talk who will support us. The idea is that we meet about once per month. My discernment partner and I usually meet for coffee in the evenings and chat for an hour. Others have gone on hikes, shared meals, or participated in other activities with their partners. Per the title, I think they are supposed to guide and offer support especially as it relates to vocational discernment. My experience is that my mentor buddy likes to get to know me, see how I’m doing, and hear my reflections on various aspects of life. It’s nice to have a neutral person with whom I can just chat.
This is not an exhaustive list of my sources of support. I also feel support from my supervisor and co-workers at my site placement, my family, church members, and friends of the YAV program. However, I wanted to take the time to describe the levels of support that are inherent in the YAV model. Yes, I moved to a new city in August, but I did not feel stranded or estranged. I was immediately enveloped in a caring community, and for that I am very grateful.
Flash blogs are short posts written to a shared prompt during community discussion time -- with a ten minute time limit. This practice helps us get used to blogging, stay in communication with our followers, and challenge ourselves to not overthink how we share with the world. See each YAV's response to this shared prompt below!
For starters, I totally had the idea to write a blog post about this in August or September-ish. Well, I didn’t. But because I had thought about it a bit back then, I already have some ideas and reflections on the Borderlands. Through this limited writing entry, I will see how those reflections have transformed through the last several months.
My first interaction with the Borderlands in my YAV year was that I decided to go to a site that is called “The Tucson Borderlands Site.” Right there in the name! At first, I thought that the borderlands was clearly referring to the U.S.- Mexico border to which we are so close here in Tucson. We’ve traveled to the border a number of times, and I remember in my initial interview with Alison before coming, she said something to the effect of, “The border is felt in all parts of life here in Tucson.”
My understanding of Borderlands changed at national YAV orientation when during our anti-racism training, we were presented with the borderlands framework. (Oh geez, how did I explain this in less than 10 minutes?) We split into groups and wrote sticky notes of all sorts of characteristics that are considered the “norm,” like: insured, Christian, educated, white, heterosexual, home owner, two-parent family. These sticky notes were posted into a square-ish shape on the wall. Then we wrote sticky notes that had traits that were societally perceived as outside of the norm like transgender, atheist, people of color, non-English speaking, immigrant, uninsured. These stickies were assembled around the square center, forming a border. I had never thought of the borderlands this way. The invisible, but far, far from nonexistent, lines in our society. I have returned to this framework of thinking many times throughout the year. Under this framework, any YAV site could have “Borderlands” in its name. Because of the emphasis and format of YAV, my peers all over the country and world are interacting with these invisible lines on a daily basis.
What do “The Borderlands” mean to me? Before becoming a Tucson Borderlands YAV, I had never heard the word “borderlands” before. When I thought of a border, I thought of a hard dividing line. Once you cross it, you are in an entire differently place than you were before. For example, once you cross the US/Mexico you go from being in Mexico to in the United States. It’s a black and white, night and day change. Seems reasonable right?
What I have learned during my YAV year is that while yes, that is the technical definition of a border, it does not really encompass the lived experience of people who make their lives in the lands near the border. The border is a lot less hard of a line than I thought, in fact, it is often very blurry. You may cross the border into the United States, but for the next 100 miles, you may be forced to show your ID or prove your a US citizen at a myriad of Border Patrol Checkpoints. So you are not really past the border once you step into the United States, it follows you, popping its head up and making you prove you belong on this side.
The border continues to follow you throughout Tucson. Every day, the green and white trucks of Border Patrol whiz up and down the city streets, reminding you of the ever present border. In the courtroom downtown, people’s lives are turned upside down on a daily basis as a judge rules they must return to the other side of the border, that they don’t belong on this side. In Southern Arizona, being 25 or 50 or 100 miles from the border is really meaningless. For some the border is always there. To me, that is why we live in the “Borderlands.” Whether we can see it or not, this land is shaped by the border, no matter how far away that border might be.
The borderlands and the myths/ideas surrounding a borderlands whether that is real or perceived is a subject of great importance but also of equally great confusion. A borderlands can exist anywhere where there is a space/gap between the familiar and unfamiliar. Whether this is within the realm of the material world or only within the minds of those living within it; the ramifications for those who exist outside of the familiar can all too often be isolation and unnecessary struggle. This also begs the question of what our role, as people of God, are in the face of this timeless struggle. Throughout many parts of the New Testament there are important reoccurring themes that reverberate throughout it. While they manifest themselves in different ways one of these central themes is simply to:
Live in Adversity
But what does this truly mean? I could spend countless pages; possibly whole books on what this fully entails but one thing is certain. That as believers we are called out of comfort, or the familiar, into the borderlands. Just like how a muscle cannot grow without first being torn or a skill learned without time and energy expended we are called to the borderlands to grow through necessary suffering. This allows us to not only grow stronger physically but also spiritually, and in doing so grow closer to God and our understanding of the work we are called to do.